The importance of protecting your skin from the sun

It's easy to forget about the importance of protecting your skin from the potentially damaging effects of sun exposure when you live in the UK.

Sunny days can seem like such a rarity, that many of us rush out to bask in the golden rays as soon as we get the chance - with little thought for the long-term effects on our skin.

But when the sun does come out, it's potentially just as damaging as it is anywhere else in the world.

In fact, up to nine in 10 UK cases of melanoma skin cancer are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, and case numbers hit an all-time high in 2023, according to figures released by Cancer Research.

The relative lack of sunny days, particularly during the winter, and sometimes the spring, could be part of the problem; skin that is not used to being exposed to the sun is more likely to burn. That's why you see so many red faces when the sun does start to shine at the start of the British summer, and it is even more important to play it "sun safe" - even when the sun isn't shining brightly. Here's how to protect yourself and your loved ones from damaging UV rays.

Know your numbers

Cancer Research analysis shows there are 17,500 cases of skin cancer being diagnosed per year and projections reveal that these numbers could continue to increase by around 50% over the next 20 years.1

How can I enjoy the sun safely?

We all love to feel the warmth of the sun on our skin and faces. It's good for our mental health and wellbeing and is also an important source of the vitamin D we need.

But longer term, too much sun exposure, whether you tan or burn, is an important risk factor for all skin cancers, especially melanoma.

Sunbathing has been popular since the 1970s, before people became more aware of the links to skin cancer, and now we're seeing the consequences of the tanning trend. As a result of this, for those aged 55 and older, the probability of getting skin cancer has almost tripled since the 1990s.

Among those most at risk are people who work outside. That's why the Health and Safety Executive recommends that outdoor workers cover up, stay in the shade when possible, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.2

Sun safety tips

These easy-to-follow tips from Cancer Research UK and Nivea Sun will help to keep your skin protected this summer.

  • Seek shade: especially between the hours of 11am-3pm in the UK, when the sun is at its strongest.
  • Cover up with clothing: wear a shirt with sleeves that cover your shoulders, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Apply sunscreen regularly: choose one with SPF 15 (SPF 30 for children) or above and at least 4-star UVA protection.

As the first sign of melanoma is often changes to our skin, being sun safe also means being alert to this, especially when it comes to moles or freckles that could be a sign of more serious health issues.

Changes that you should get checked out by a GP - and potentially a dermatologist - include:

  • Moles that change size, shape, or colour.
  • Itchy or painful moles (including those that are cracked/bleeding).
  • New and/or unusual marks on your skin that last for more than a few weeks.
  • Dark areas under your nails that are not caused by injury.

Top tip - If you or a loved one has several moles that you are concerned about, you can use your mobile phone to keep a photographic record that will help you spot any changes.

Did you know?

You have an increased risk of melanoma if you have lots of moles on your body, particularly if they're large (more than 5mm) or unusually shaped.3

What if I get sunburnt?

Sunburn is uncomfortable at best; and can be very painful - and in severe cases, it can even lead to heat exhaustion and/or heatstroke. It's also unsightly, especially if your skin blisters or peels. Depending on your skin type, it's possible to get burnt by spending just 15 minutes outside in full sunshine.

While it might take a bit longer, it's also worth remembering that you can burn on hazy or even overcast summer days, which are precisely the sorts of days when you're less likely to be careful.

Did you know?

Having darker skin does not mean you can't get sunburnt or develop skin cancer. While white skin goes pink or red when overexposed to the sun, brown and black skin can also change colour due to too much sun - and anyone can develop a melanoma, most commonly on areas of skin often exposed to the sun (like your face, arms and legs) but also under nails, on your palms, or on the soles of your feet.

If you do get sunburnt, current NHS advice is to:

  • Get out of the sun as soon as you can.
  • Cool your skin with a cool shower or bath or with a damp towel (taking care not to let a baby or young child get too cold).
  • Apply an after sun cream or spray.
  • Drink plenty of water to cool down and prevent dehydration.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen to manage any related pain.
  • Keep sunburnt skin out of direct sunlight until the affected area has completely healed.

The NHS also has some handy tips on things you should NOT do if your skin burns in the sun. These include:

  • Do not use petroleum jelly on sunburnt skin.
  • Do not put ice or ice packs on sunburnt skin.
  • Do not pop any blisters.
  • Do not scratch or try to remove peeling skin.
  • Do not wear tight-fitting clothes over sunburnt skin.

When it comes to seeking medical attention for sunburn, it advises calling a doctor or contacting the NHS 111 helpline if:

  • Your skin is blistered or swollen.
  • Your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery.
  • You feel very tired, dizzy, and sick.
  • You have a headache and muscle cramps.
  • Your baby or young child has sunburn.

Top tip - Whilst the dangers of sun damage to our skin are most prevalent during the summer months, when the strength of the sun is at its highest, many skincare experts recommend using a daily suncream/moisturiser with SPF protection all year round, as UV damage is possible at all times of the year, in all weather conditions.


About the author

Jessica Bown is a freelance writer and journalist.